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On the make … in a van called Rhubarb

Scotland is no longer a manufacturing nation.

Vana Coleman and Fi Scott toured Scotland in a VW Campervan visiting manufacturers including weavers Peter Greig & Co in Kirkcaldy. Photographs: Ross Fraser McLean
Vana Coleman and Fi Scott toured Scotland in a VW Campervan visiting manufacturers including weavers Peter Greig & Co in Kirkcaldy. Photographs: Ross Fraser McLean

We don't make things any more - not on the scale we used to. We can't compete with the Far East - they can make things for a price we can't match. The skilled workforce we once prided ourselves on is no longer here.

But are these statements true? Is Scotland really a country that doesn't (or can't) make things any more? No, says Fi Scott, who has created Make Works, a Scotland manufacturing directory aimed at artists and designers that will launch this month. These people may not be well known - or easy to find - but Scott believes manufacturing is alive and well, if hidden. "It was hard initially to get to know or find manufacturers, but once I started knocking on doors and seeing what was there I realised there was so much," she says.

Scott, who is 24 and graduated from Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in 2012, should know. She has spent two years getting to know manufacturers from the Borders to Shetland. It's been a labour of love - and, at times, frustration - and one that has seen Scott and her team walk the length of almost every industrial estate in the country.

The results have been worth it.

The Make Works directory, a list of manufacturing companies producing everything from textiles and leather to metals and components, is the first of its kind. Currently online but with plans for a print publication, it is aimed at artists and designers who are looking to have their work produced.

"We saw everyone from big factories to trades people and it was fascinating," explains Scott, who left her Edinburgh base to spend 90 days last year travelling around Scotland in a tartan VW campervan named Rhubarb (the Make Works team are a quirky bunch) with designer Vana Coleman and photographer Ross Fraser McLean. "There will be 150 companies [in the list] at the launch. We've made sure they are open to working with designers and artists."

While the directory will be primarily aimed at creatives (Scott has dubbed it "the Match.com of the arts world"), what Scott has unearthed is a wealth of information on Scotland's manufacturing talents - companies few people are aware of despite many having existed for decades, and who are also successfully producing goods for markets around the world. Gathering them under one umbrella is an impressive feat, especially as many of these businesses are unknown, even to people working in similar fields.

"People have spoken about it, like finding the right manufacturer is like finding gold," says Scott, who was inspired to begin the project, which has received funding from Creative Scotland, while studying product design at GSA. A summer internship in the United States opened her eyes to the benefits of manufacturing and when Scott returned home, to begin her final year at art school, she was determined to find out what was available.

Initially she didn't hold out much hope. "I sketched in my notebook 'Scottish industry' with a big question mark. Is it still here? So I started going round industrial estates. I would get a train and walk to the edge of the town to the industrial estate. I was knocking on doors asking: 'What do you make here?'"

The standard modern method of finding things - the internet search engine - had proved useless. Not least, explains Scott, because many of the companies she visited didn't - and still don't - have websites. Instead, Scott, Coleman and McLean went on their grand tour. They were joined on the road by eight artists and designers in residence, each for one week at a time. At times, says Scott, the quest was like being in a certain classic film. "We figured it out," adds Scott. "But there was a lot of me standing in telephone boxes, Local Hero style, asking if I could come and visit people's factories."

Businesses listed include Paisley-based Carlton Die Castings, Scotland's last die-casting company, Kirkcaldy weavers Peter Greig & Co and Montrose Rope & Sail, which makes off-shore kit bags from heavy-duty fabrics. "We thought: 'Sail makers. It's so specific. Is it going to work for the directory?' And it did," says Scott. "They were so friendly - they were so open to us."

Lynda Paton, who owns the Montrose company with her husband, said they were immediately keen to be involved in the project. "They were inspirational and so enthusiastic," says Paton of the travelling Make Works team. "It was wonderful because there is a lack of knowledge of what is made in this country. As far as design goes, it's good to stay in touch with young people with innovative designs because although we've got a bag we've sold for years - we've tweaked it a few times over the years - to move with the times we need to keep in contact with these people."

Glasgow manufacturer Andrew Muirhead, which supplies high-quality leather to airlines such as British Airways and Emirates, was also keen to be involved.

"Muirhead was interested because we did feel it was a worthwhile project to promote manufacturing," explains David Gibson, the company's marketing associate.

"Part of Muirhead's business is with contractors, designers and architects, so we were already working with them.

It's not the biggest part of the business by any means but it is a worthwhile chunk."

Like Scott and Paton, Gibson also believes too little is known about Scotland's manufacturing capabilities.

He adds: "In the recent past, manufacturing has been out of favour with the government. That seems to be changing and there has been more emphasis put on manufacturing."

I ask Scott why she thinks so many manufacturers remain relatively unknown. "It's a combination," she says. "At the time online was starting to boom, industry was declining. A lot of people couldn't find manufacturers so they got their designs made overseas. You find the designers who did keep making things locally have these old-fashioned little black address books of suppliers. It's so old school it's crazy."

Scott clearly hopes her directory will change that, making manufacturers more visible to the creative community and beyond. There are plans to continue building it. "We're going back on the road at the end of this month," adds Scott. "We're going to go on the road for one week every month to keep the directory growing."

Scott hopes the Make Works directory will have grander implications too. "This should change how we make stuff in Scotland: how we manufacture things," she says. "Culturally, what a country makes says a lot about it."

So what can we say about Scotland, then? We can make things here. We do. n

Visit makeworks.co.uk.

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